Reading and discussing certain novels, there was an unavoidable sense of arbitrariness, a sense that these books probably would not be much read had they not won the Booker, and that that might not necessarily have been an unsustainable loss to the literary world.
From The Millions.
When the CBC bought the broadcast rights to the Giller Prize, I joked that we would soon see the Giller decided by an online vote. It was one of those jokes one hesitates to make: too snide, uncalled for, adding insult to earlier insult without just cause. Yes, one hesitates — unless, of course, one is me, in which case one snickers and goes right ahead. And then, months later, one finds himself vindicated by the frankly baffling announcement that the public will indeed vote in this year to place one title on the Giller longlist.
Yes, I do have a problem with this. But first things first: before I can argue that vote-ins are a problem, we have to ask why we have prizes in the first place. What are prizes for?
Prizes are for selling books.
The Giller winner will move about 100,000 copies, in a bookselling environment where the average novel sells about 1000 copies, and a debut story collection may move only a few hundred. Most of those copies sell to people who may only read a few serious books each year; if the award did not exist, that money would not be spread over dozens of other titles, but would instead be spent on movie tickets, restaurant meals, or whatever else. Most of the books sold each year are sold just before Christmas, during the awards season, and prizes set the agenda. It is the prizes that define the national shopping list.
So prizes are a huge boon to booksellers, an annual golden egg squeezed out of a generous goose. Which books sell does not matter. Books, in the bookseller’s general ledger, are toothpaste; all that really matters is how much you squeeze out of the tube.
But prizes don’t serve anyone else tremendously well. Not publishers (especially small presses), who can’t count on winning; not writers, likewise; and certainly not the readers who, having received a copy of The Sentimentalists for Christmas, find themselves leaving two-star Amazon reviews. The fact that a book wins an award is no guarantee that you will like it, or indeed, that it has any great merit. “Winner of the Giller Prize” means, in reality, nothing more than the collision of three people’s reading tastes, with a certain amount of mud wrestling to follow. It is a terribly arbitrary way to make careers. The prize system, in short, sucks.
But its effects are not entirely pernicious. Prizes bring money to people who need it. Prizes turn unknown writers into reader favorites. They mainline injections of pure cash into the scrawny arms of lucky publishers, and they keep booksellers in business. It’s also worth noting that the people who run and organize prizes have the best intentions.
So prizes are a lousy way to sell books, but they are also the best way we have. We can’t hope for them to be perfect — but we can hope for them to be as fair as possible, and as valuable as possible to everyone involved.
Which leads to the problems with a vote-in system. An online vote is not a fair system, and it diminishes the value of the prize.
People tend to think of a vote as the fairest way of settling matters, but online voting is not voting. An online vote carries with it three problems:
- it favours the politician, the writer or publisher who can use social media to build the biggest base of support. And that support may come from people who would not ordinarily pay any attention to the prize. Consider the organized (and successful) campaign to vote a graphic novel onto Canada Reads — a campaign that appealed to people who had never listened to the show, many of whom did not even live in Canada.
- it favours the established writer. The writer with the most fans stands to win; the debut author will get votes from her mother, boyfriend, and cat. The established writer can rely on fans who haven’t even read her latest book. One of the most valuable functions of prizes — to launch the careers of new and unknown writers — is lost.
- it favours the book with a cult following. This is the most damaging effect of online votes, and bears further examination.
The best example of a cult following making a mockery of literary merit is the Modern Library’s top 100 novels of the century, which featured an editors’ list and a readers’ list, established by a public vote.
The editors’ list, predictably, featured the usual suspects: Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Under the Volcano. One would expect the readers’ list to veer more towards the commercially successful, the accessible, the book club favourite, with a smattering of genre; more Steinbeck, less Joyce, and some sci-fi. And indeed, Tolkien is there (as arguably he should be, having created an entire genre), as is Heinlein, and Nevil Shute, and Stephen King. This is all good and well; all we have here is a collision of different standards of merit.
But something strange is going on in the top 10: four novels by the noxious Ayn Rand, and two by L. Ron Hubbard. Both writers take “cult following” to a new level. And clearly, their cult members stuffed the ballot boxes.
Canada Reads also saw this phenomenon at work: Terry Fallis’s The Best Laid Plans, a book so badly written that I would have rejected it in its published form, made it to the top 10 not on its own merits but because its Cinderella metastory — rejected by all the big houses, self-published book wins Major Literary Prize (the Leacock grows in significance in the retelling), is picked up by Idiot Editors who passed it over and achieves greatness! — appeals to that large constituency of people who complain that we need to embrace the new world order and be done with the gatekeepers.
Will this ruin the Giller Prize? Well, not really. Let’s remember that we are talking about only one title on the longlist, with no prospect of getting to the shortlist unless the jury chose it, too. But I am not pleased by the prospect of one spot on that longlist — one resume-padding “longlisted for the Giller Prize” — being taken from some deserving book from a debut author and given to whoever can organize an online vote.
It is notable that the public can’t vote for the winner, or the shortlist, or even for the entire longlist. The prize organizers themselves recognize that this is a lousy way to choose a longlist title. But they have gone ahead and done it — egged on, no doubt, by nasty little creatures at the CBC who measure merit in page hits — in the interest of publicity. It’s silly, and it’s unnecessary. Publicity is the one thing that the Giller Prize doesn’t lack.
I don’t know why I even link to stuff like this: that same old, same old complaint about Canlit, the muddy middle thereof, the endless misery of the prairies (with no offence intended to Saskatchewan readers — I feel for you, I really do, what with the endless family history you all seem to have endured):
… the trend … was a very depressing tendency towards humourless, dismal stories. What was more, she said, some of these novels suffered from the curse of the bookclub – “a story with an issue at its heart rather than a book you can’t put down”.
“There was very little wit, and no jokes. If I read another sensitive account of a woman coming to terms with bereavement, I was going to slit my wrists.”
So there you go.
Oh, wait — that’s not about Canlit at all — it’s about the Orange Prize! And the whole lead-in to this post was just a disingenuous setup for this paragraph, wherein I poke fun at those critics of Canlit who pretend that all that misery isn’t, in fact, a global phenomenon! With exclamation marks! On everything!
You really should have known from my ellipsiss, um, ellipsisses? Ellipses? Oh, I give up.